middle strata, 5/6, German academics

Jack Hill mlbooks at mcs.com
Sun Oct 29 21:12:58 MST 1995

Middle strata, Part 5 of 6, German Academic Circles
(by Pete T.)
    Research and Debate in German Academic Circles 1900-1940
     Some of the most useful and interesting research and debate 
took place in German academic circles between the turn of the 
century and the 1930's. This debate is useful not only for the 
ideas developed (many of which were proved wrong by subsequent 
developments) but for the picture of development of the middle 
strata and its role that the research and debate gives.
     Prior to WWI German non Marxist academicians emphasized the 
importance of the peasants, artisans, shop keepers and 
independent professions, ie the old classical Marxist petit-
bourgeoisie. After 1918 , this concern with non-proletarian 
elements, focused increasingly on the roles of the middle class 
in salaried employment. Important in this shift of emphasis were 
Oswald Spengler, Ernst Niekishch and numerous contributors to the 
periodical Die Tat. The "Tat" circle published numerous 
investigations into the position of the new middle class, 
including their relationship to fascism and to the working class.
     What united the theorists of the right was their conception 
that the new middle class would act as a check against the 
polarization of society. They saw the salaried workers as a third 
force, independent of both capitalists and workers. Mediating 
between increasingly concentrated capital on one hand and labor 
on the other, the new middle class would bring an end to the 
instability of the social system.
     Within this pespective the position of the salaried worker 
was considered to be fundamentally different from that of the 
manual wokrer, because the former performed  what were seen as 
delegated entrepreneurial functions. The influence of this view 
was very widespread among German white collar workers. The D.H.V 
by far the largest and most right wing of the organizations of 
salaried workers was particularly active in promoting this view.
     The debate on white collar workers was also reflected in 
academic sociological circles. One of the most interesting of the 
characters in the debate was Emil Lederer. In 1912 Lederer wrote 
a book part of which was later translated into English under the 
title of The Problem of the Modern Salaried Employee: Its 
Theoretical and Statistical Basis.(WPA Project no. 165-6999-6027, 
New York,1937. Cited by Carter in Capitalism, Class Conflict and 
the New Middle Class.)
     In The Problem of the Modern Salaried Employee Lederer shared 
the judgement of Bernsteinians that Marxism oversimplified the 
stratafication of classes. He admitted that there was a process 
of concentration of capital going on which reduced the number of 
employers and increased the number of workers. But that the 
process had other consequences as well namely emergence of a 
class of technicians and who could not categorically be 
classified as proletarians or as employers. In addition a 
socially analagous strata of salaried workers had emerged in 
commerce and in government. 
     Lederer defined membership to this strata as people who 
although wage laborers had work which was more intellectual than 
manual but more definitive for Lederer was their middle position 
between the industrial proletariat and the bourgeoisie. "This 
middle position between the two classes-- a negative 
characteristic--rather than definite technical functions, is the 
social mark of the salaried employees and establishes on their 
own consciousness and in the estimation of the community."
     Lederer did not deny that the salaried workers were far from 
a homogeneous lot or that there was a tendency on the edges for 
this strata to be absorbed into the proletariat on the bottom and 
into the bourgeoisie on the top. Nevertheless he felt that these 
tendencies did not preclude by any means the possibility that 
salaried employees would more and more become an independent 
group, not only on account of thier increasing numbers, but as a 
result of their growing consciousness of their special interests.
     Thus Lederer's original views coincided a great deal with 
those of Die Tat.
     Then in 1926 Lederer together with Jacob Marschak wrote 
another work "Der Neue Mittelstand" in which while repeating  
much of the earlier analysis stressing the common social position 
between the two major classes of the time proletariat and 
bourgeoisie, Lederman and Marshak this time give a different 
description of where these strata are going. Lederer was very 
much influenced in this second work by the radicalized mood in 
German society following 1918 and the early Wiemar Republic. 
     Lederer and Marschak noted that prior to 1918 the salaried 
workers had primarily come from the "bourgeois strata" small 
proprietors, independent professional strata, ruined businessmen 
etc. According to Lederer and Marschak "...[until] recently, it 
was possible for the salaried employee to attain a position 
consistent with his abilities or to become himself an 
independent. Such considerations foster among the employees those 
tendencies which seek to check the material and social 
degredation of their class and aim at the preservation of their 
middle class standards of living and prestige." (from 
Carter: Capitalism, Class Conflict... p 58) 
     As the salaried employees began to organize, they had to 
aknowledge thier status as employees, as wage laborers. Thus the 
demands of the group had to take the form of a labor policy but 
with a distinctly middle class character--such as a demand for a 
seperate salaried employees state pension system, abrogating 
clauses in contracts prohibiting people from going to work for 
rival firms, safeguarding employees property rights to their 
inventions etc. Lederer noted a wide variation in the degree to 
which various sections organized seperately for their interests 
as a middle class or strata, but pointed out that even the 
technicians who were most influenced by the labor movement 
staunchly rejected any cooperation with the manual workers trade 
union movement as well as socialist ideology.
     But after the War and the crisis of 1918 the economic and 
social conditions that had underpinned this seperate middle class 
movement were dramatically undermined. 
     "Proletarianization of the middle-class strata, which went 
on at an unprecedented pace, and the raising of the social status 
of the 'manual' worker, which brought him steadily closer to the 
employee, proved stronger than any class tradition. The economic 
conditions, the political changes, the recognition of the trade 
unions and the abolition of all traditional conceptions of the 
social order forced the employee organizations to adopt the aims 
and methods of the labor unions. ...
     "The transformation of the whole employee movementafter 1918 
had the additional effect of shifting the balance of power to the 
more radical employee associations and of causing further changes 
in their policies. Such changes were the replacement , in 
associations of the policy of 'harmony' by a trade union policy, 
and the infiltration of the formerly rejected socialist doctrines 
into the radical organizations...What is still more important, 
activities characteristic of the policy of labor unions-- such as 
collective wage agreements and 'orgnaized labor's last resort', 
the strike-- were finally adopted and practiced in the manner of 
labor organizations. " "Der Neue Mittlestand" by Lederer and 
Marshak 1926 cited in Bob Carters Capitalism, class conflict, and 
the New Middle Class
     Ledherer did not regard these changes as temporary effects 
of the immediate post war period, but regarded the allegiance of 
the office employees to the working class movement to be part of 
a longterm developmental process.
     "An intermediate position between the classes is no longer 
possible and the fact of being employed in a dependent capacity 
triumphs over all class and traditional restraints. The adoption 
by the salaried employees and public officials of the aims and 
methods of labor.... are expressive of the fact that a single 
stratum of gainfully employed (if not a single organization) is 
in the process of formation." ibid.
     No sooner however did Lederer and Marshak make such 
predictions than the new middle strata swung more than any other 
strata in society behind the  Nazis. In 1940 Lederer wrote 
another work in which he returned to his original position of 
seeing the new middle strata as a stabilizing force for 
capitalism. Lederer's flip flops in assesment of the new middle 
strata mirror the swings of this strata with the balance of class 
forces in Germany. His errors highlight the dangers of taking any 
transient position of any middle strata as its permanent 
trajectory. The most prominent characteristic of a middle strata 
is its propensity to vacilate to go with those who appear to be 
     Probably the most balanced of the German academic theorists 
was Hans Speir who pointed out that while economically the 
salaried employees were members of the working class ie wage 
laborers, they were seperated from the manual workers and played 
a middle contradictory role. Speir was an academic who 
sympathized with the SDP in the 20's and 30's. 
     His work German White Collar Workers and the Rise of 
Hitler written in 1933 and published in English in 1986 by Yale 
University Press, is very useful for getting a picture of the 
development of various sectors and strata of the white collar 
workers and of the dominant psychology of German society in which 
these developments take place. As well Speir traces the changing 
political, economic and ideological attitudes of different 
sections through the first three decades of the century.
     Speir raises a number of things that tend to seperate the 
white collar workers from the manual workers:
1. The priviledge of superior education, though how superior 
varies greatly.
2.  Sharing in the authority of the employer. As capitalism 
developed the role of the capitalist in production and commerce 
was replaced by organizations of employees. These employees to 
one degree or another share in the authority and prestige of the 
employer. There is of course a tendency with the growth of the 
white collar employee strata for its proletarianization that more 
of the functions become routinized, the employees become 
extremely replacable and their wages fall to the level of the 
manual workers and sometimes below. Speir also points out that 
this tendency to proletarianization is generally associated with 
feminization as well. Thus with proletarianization for the lower 
section this authority and prestige becomes hugely diluted. 
Meanwhile however he points out that there is a significant 
countertrend: that the growth of the white collar strata creates 
new opportunities to rise into managerial, specialist or 
supervisory functions for male employees usually of more middle 
class backgrounds. (At this time the lower strata of the white 
collar workers were being heavily or even predominantly recruited 
from the working class -eg retail clerks, office machine 
operators, some what smaller degree among stenographers, 
technicians, and higher level clerks. But engineers, professional 
employees and government bureaucrats and higher managers were 
still overwhelmingly recruited from bourgeois, independent 
producer or professional, or official classes though less so than 
when Kautsky wrote 30 years earlier.)
3.Masked class membership. Where as the factory production worker 
feel clearly that the capitalist and his management organization 
are the ones exploiting him or her and can see that his or her 
fellow workers are in the same condition , the situation is much 
less clear for the majority of white collar workers. The white 
collar worker Speir points out is part of captitalist management 
organization that is hierarchical in nature. Not only does this 
organization in part organize the exploitation of the manual 
workers with different degrees of participation in this process 
of exploitation by different sections of the white collar 
workers, many of whom may be quite far removed from that aspect, 
but within the white collar workforce the hierarchical 
organization makes it so that the workers experience their own 
exploitation and oppression from the strata imediately above 
while helping control, exploit and oppress to one degree or 
another the office workers below them. In many official and non 
official ways Speir says that this extends quite far down in even 
the clerical workforce even to stenographers in his day. In big 
offices he says he found only the office machine operators and 
messengers to be entirely free of this contradictory position and 
to have the clearest most objective assesment of the system of 
     Speir pointed out that the situation was different for 
retail clerks. They were not so much ensnared in a hierarchical 
system. But most of their social activity on the job was acting 
to one degree or another as a representative of the employer to 
the buying public which they dealt with on a non class basis ie 
the customer does not act as a worker or a capitalist in the act 
of purchasing retail goods. This aspect of their work experience 
tended to slow the growth of class consciousness among this 
section although they were usually very exploited and oppressed 
and very heavily working class women especially in the cities and 
in the "one price stores"(apparently department stores). 
4.The priviledge of their nationalism.  This seems a strange 
formulation by Speir but it speaks of a phenomenon that was very 
pronounced in Germany and exists to a degree in other countries. 
In pre 1918 Germany, the dominant Junker aristocratic prejudices 
defined the limits of the German nation at the border of the 
manual proletariat. The proletariat was considered a dangerous 
class, a class without national loyalty by definition, not just 
because of the influence of Marxism, a class outside the German 
nation and as such was segregated to great extent physically and 
in the electoral system from the other classes. (No doubt this 
clumsy policy contributed mightily to growth of socialism among 
the German workers.) The white collar workers as wage laboring 
employees existed just on the other side of that border and to be 
forced over the border would be a great loss of prestige and 
     Speir also chronicles the motion among different sectors of 
the white collar workers. And this history verifies the analysis 
of a middle strata with its lower edge merging with the 
proletariat and its upper section with the bourgeoisie and a vast 
middle section which vacilates. 
     Before 1918-1919, the vast majority of white collar workers 
were not organized. To the extent that they organized they joined 
professional and office worker organizations that admitted 
employers as well. The exception being a small section of factory 
technicians and retail clerks who were organized into unions 
affiliated with the SDP. There was also a section of technicians 
who were organized into a union which believed in strikes and 
collective action but also wanted to maintain its distance from 
the unions and movement of the manual workers. But generally in 
this strata there was not only hostility to the manual workers 
but to the idea of collective strike action as being too 
proletarian a weapon. The majority of office workers to the 
extent that they were organized belonged to the DHV a reactionary 
pro capitalist, anti semitic extreme nationalist organization 
dominated by the upper sections. As well the stratafication 
within the middle strata was also refected organizationally. When 
the technicians formed their unions the Engineers formed a 
society to distinguish themselves from the technicians and so on. 
     WWI brought a tremendous fall in standard of living for the 
white collar workers who actually fell to a lower standard of 
living than a large section of the manual workers. General 
disenchantement with the imperialist war grew as the suffering 
grew. When the proletatian movement broke out in the last years 
of the war the office workers were impressed and there was 
widespread sympathy among the lower sections of white collar 
workers. With the end of the war and the revolution of 1918-1919 
there was a huge wave of unionization among the white collar 
workers. Initially these workers streamed into the unions 
affiliated with the USDP (which in this period was an alliance 
between the centrists and the Communists) They were attracted to 
radical politics. But as the height of revolutionary fervor ebbed 
the affiliation with these unions fell off. The base of the more 
left white collar unions remained among the technicians the 
female retail sales clerks and the lower level mostly female 
office workers and did not expand beyond this.  But through the 
early 20's white collar workers continued to join various unions 
but mainly the conservative and liberal unions. There was a sense 
among the mass of especially male professional and middle and 
upper clerical and accounting and managerial workers of being 
caught between two large forces: the proletariat proper and the 
bourgeoisie. The conservative and liberal unions appealed to this 
sense of being in the middle and organized for the interests of 
the middle as opposed to joining the lower mass. Even the DHV, by 
the far the largest white collar union federation was compelled 
to recognize the need for strikes, but it was opposed to the idea 
that the office workers and manual workers were of the same class 
or should have solidarity with the manual workers struggle, 
unions or parties. The DHV and GDA representing 75 per cent of 
the white collar workers fought bitter battles for seperate 
representation of white collar workers on factory councils, for 
seperate social insurance for salaried workers and so on. They 
continued to push a nationalist male chauvinist and anti semitic 
line (The DHV much more so than the GDA). 
     As the SD led Weimar Republic fell into deeper crisis in the 
late 20's and as the Communists were unable to rally the working 
class decisively behind a revolutionary policy away from the SDP, 
the majority of the white collar workers moved to the right. They 
faced growing uncertainty in life and yet they had no confidence 
that the proletariat could lead society out of its crisis. So 
they turned to the Nazis and the right in general. The Nazis had 
enormous appeal to this strata. They recruited from the upper and 
middle sections of the white collar workers per capita more than 
from any other section of the population 2 times the rate as from 
the small farmers and almost 4 times the rate among the manual 
workers, even though the latter faced astronomical unemployment 
more than twice as high as among the office workers. By the late 
20's early 30's the DHV leaders were all Nazis or Nazi 
sympathizers. The GDA too moved to the right. Only the Alpha Bund 
unions of technicians, and retail clerks and lowest female office 
workers stayed to the left or center. They were affiliated with 
the SDP but actually maintained positions to the left of SDP and 
the SDP unions of manual workers. (There were no KDP unions of 
office workers but then there were only 35,000 manual workers in 
red trade unions.) 
     This history should give pause to anyone who gets excited 
about the pace of proletarianization of the middle strata. We can 
see in Germany only the lowest level of clerical, technical and 
retail trade workers went very far to the left and stayed there 
while the professional, managerial upper and middle clerical may 
have temporarily moved somewhat to the left but as the crisis 
deepened and the proletariat proved incapable of winning went to 
the extreme right. This strata resists its proletarianization 
with frequent detours into right wing politics ala Hitler or 
Perot or Reaganism. Bringing the even the lower majority of this 
section with the movement of the lower mass would require an 
extremely strong movement of the lower mass and the 
disintegration of the bourgeois order. 
     It should also be born in mind from Speirs points on 
contradictory class position and masked class membership what the 
sinking of sections of the middle strata into the proletariat 
means for the composition attitudes and consciousness and 
cohesion of the proletarian lower mass, ie what influences from 
their previous middle strata existence they bring as a mass into 
the consciousness of the proletariat as a whole. Thus, future 
work will have to pay particular attention to the post WWII 
social research on the condition and outlooks of the clerical and 
lower technical workers and their role in the political and 
economic struggles in which they have participated.

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